As I predicted back in 2008, the people who now hold this belief that anything less than total control and absolute discipline is a sign of weakness and illegitimacy are now what pollsters politely call “the centre-left.”
Sadly, as with all broadly held cultural assumptions, these values concerning control, submission and dissent eventually escape their original context and run rampant through society. If people become convinced of a new moral order for how the world above them should run, it ultimately shakes down to the world below.
And we see this here with centre-left reaction to the national truckers’ protest in Ottawa. No permanent organization is running this protest, which appears to be built around social media, a GoFundMe page and a loose affiliation of local leadership groups developed in provincial protests by truckers over the past few years.
And of course, it does not represent all or even most truckers in the industry. The crew who are in Ottawa are whiter, more rural and more right-leaning than the industry as a whole, which is, in turn, whiter, more rural and more right-leaning than Canadian society as a whole. The folks in Ottawa are also more likely to be “owner-operators,” who have financed their heavy equipment through financial institutions. Those driving trucks owned by extended families or by trucking companies directly are much less likely to be part of the protest.
There is no doubt that a small fraction of these individuals are members of Canada’s tiny fascist militias, the Sons of Odin, the Proud Boys and other far-right political groups and that a disproportionate number voted for the People’s Party. In addition, the spirit of the protest and the issue it is taking up, vaccine passports, have attracted members of right-wing groups that are not themselves truckers but wish to express solidarity or see the protest as an organizing and recruitment opportunity.
Those of us who cut our teeth in the 1980s peace movement know this story well. The Vancouver Peace March used to attract 10% of the city’s population (50,000 protesters at its peak) for its annual walk across Burrard Bridge to support global nuclear disarmament. And, consequently, the vanguard of the march comprised the Trotskyites, Maoists and other communist sectarians and foreign dictator fan clubs who saw this as their big annual opportunity to radicalize and recruit ordinary anti-nuclear activists.
Because Canadians, as a whole, but especially centre-left voters have now come to believe that the legitimacy of a movement inheres not in its size or the diversity of people and views it represents but rather in its ability to discipline and control its supporters, this protest looks both illegitimate and frightening. Not only is this protest not controlling the speech and signage of its members; it is celebrating its refusal to control these things and instead sticking to the basics of making sure protesters are nonviolent and law-abiding.
And, in progressive, urban Canada, this broad-brush guilt-by-association strategy exhumed from the 1980s appears to be working, no matter how intellectually lazy its journalistic practitioners are being.
I am not writing this piece to advocate for the protest and its participants. I am writing this piece to ask Canadians like me whether we want our future protests to be judged and covered by standards applied to the truckers today. I am asking us to think about what happens to the horizon of possibility for mass organizing when we throw in with the idea that actual, authentic grassroots protests are a thing of the past and the only legitimate public demonstration is one choreographed from above, its participants carefully disciplined into reading from an identical script or into silence.
As a person who, because I dissented from the progressive consensus on a single issue, has been smeared as a transphobe, homophobe, pedophile, white supremacist, racist and ableist in the past year and a half, I can no longer simply accept the opinion of centre-left media on whether someone is a dangerous, bigoted member of the alt-right. I can no longer trust the government-financed Canadian Anti-Hate Network on whether someone is a dangerous hatemonger because many of my comrades and I are on their list. And not everyone is going to be like me and check those claims against the facts. Most people will just start ignoring those claims.
There is a high price to pay when you decide to cry “wolf” over fascism in a political situation like our own, where the authoritarian threat is real and society-wide.
More importantly still, I am trying to sound a cultural alarm bell about the exaltation of order, disciple and control as Canadians’ primary political values. The fact is that those values are authoritarian. In a nation wherein rapid, dramatic change is not just a moral necessity but an ecological one, we need to retain the capacity for mass mobilization and our capacity to resist an authoritarian regime, irrespective of whether it calls itself progressive or conservative.